Salafis, or Sunni puritans, have been much in the news since they sparked riots at U.S. embassies throughout the Arab world protesting film clips lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. A television personality on a Saudi Arabian-funded Salafi satellite channel in Egypt first fanned the flames, and Salafis ranging from the militant Mohamed al-Zawahiri (the brother of al Qaeda's chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri) to the mainstream Salafi political party al-Nour fueled the blaze when they blamed the U.S. government and called for protests against U.S. embassies. Salafis in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere took up the torch, resulting in attacks on U.S. and other Western diplomatic installations across the Middle East.
Others were involved, of course, and the protests were small compared to the protests over the Muhammad cartoons several years ago. Nevertheless, the Salafi-driven protests are one more sign the ultra-religious right is asserting itself as the guardian of the moral order in Sunni-majority countries revolting against the ancien régime. Their noisy performance on the public stage poses a major challenge to emerging democratic systems, fueling polarization inside and fears abroad. But the new political realm also poses challenges to the Salafis who are on unfamiliar ground politically and ideologically.
To understand the political behavior of Salafis today, keep four things in mind: their religious beliefs do not predict their political behavior; they are a minority in almost every Middle Eastern country; the countries where they are a majority are incredibly wealthy; and their appeal and power arises from their commitment to an ultraconservative creed that is out of step with the mainstream.
Salafis were not always so politically active (publicly criticizing government policies or working to change them). From the movement's beginning in the 1920s until the late 1970s, Salafis preferred scholasticism, political quietism, and social programs to pressure groups and vocal dissent. They frowned on criticizing Muslim rulers and participating in parliamentary systems of government, which they believed usurped God's role as law-giver. Things changed in the 1980s for some Salafis. In Saudi Arabia, a new generation of Salafis began to agitate against the royal family, pushing for a more Islamic foreign policy and conservative social reforms. In Kuwait, Salafis formed political groups and stood for elections. More ominously, some Salafis picked up arms against Muslim rulers in a jihad against "apostates" and their Western masters. All of these Salafis shared roughly the same puritanical beliefs and a desire for a state that reflects their ultraconservative values, but they differed on how to achieve it.
Significantly, despite the emergence of political parties such as Egypt's al-Nour Party, many Salafis still stay out of politics. They find it distasteful due to its entanglements, preferring instead to change society by changing people's minds. That does not mean their proselytizing has no political impact. Supporters can mobilize to change policies they do not like. Salafi-controlled mosques and charitable institutions can step in to provide public goods when the state fails. This retreat from formal politics may regain appeal among the Salafi mainstream if they fail to reap significant rewards for political engagement.
Also noteworthy is that the strength of Salafi trends varies wildly across countries. Most Sunni-majority countries have some Salafi streams, but the strength of the stream is limited by the regime's policies and the volume of Salafis. For example, small communities will not view parliamentary politics as a way to advance their agenda because their base of support is so small. In Morocco (estimated at 17,000), Tunisia (estimated at 10,000), and Jordan (estimated 7,000), other forms of activism are more effective. (By way of comparison, there are between 15,000 to 17,000 in France and no more than 5,000 in Germany.) In contrast, a large community like the one in Egypt (3 to 5 million) can mobilize far more people and resources to compete for elected office, making it an attractive choice when a government makes it available.
As the last point suggests, a regime's response to Salafi political mobilization matters too. Regimes with an effective security apparatus can curtail violent dissent. But if the regime indiscriminately cracks down on Salafis in response to the violence of a few or if it denies them political access after granting it, the regime risks pushing more of the community to revolt, as happened in Algeria. Conversely, regimes that allow Salafis political access can siphon support away from violent groups. And even when a regime does not allow political access, many Salafis remain politically neutral when the state leaves them alone to run their religious institutions. The more institutions Salafis have, the more likely they will protect them by remaining politically quiet or engaging peacefully. Again, size matters.
Money matters, too. Wealthy Salafis in the Gulf amplify the political influence of Salafis abroad by bankrolling their religious institutions. Kuwaiti Salafis fund a number of the charitable institutions in Egypt; the Egyptian al-Nour party drew political support from these charities in the recent parliamentary elections. Kuwaiti Salafis finance one of the major Salafi militias fighting in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham. And as mentioned earlier, it was a Saudi-funded Salafi satellite channel in Egypt that first drew attention to the Muhammad film clips.
What matters to others in the political realm may not be of the most importance to the Salafis. As Sunni puritans, Salafis see themselves as the guardians of public morality, which not only involves sexual matters and dress but also putting religious minorities and "unorthodox" Muslims in their place. Where the state fails to police others' morals, Salafis respond with criticism, demonstrations, and even vigilantism. Again, the mix of responses in a given country is influenced by the size of the Salafi community and the regime's response.
One major complicating factor for predicting Salafi political behavior is the nature of the new regimes. Before the Arab uprisings, Islamists did not run the governments of the Arab world (Sudan being the exception), and moderate Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood spoke for the opposition on the religious right. Now that they are in power, the voice of the dissenting right is Salafi, which gives the Salafis leverage they never had before. But it also changes the nature of their political critique and puts them at odds with others claiming the same mantle of religion. Peaceful political engagement is unlikely to moderate Salafis' social views. Their appeal derives from their unwillingness to compromise their ultraconservative values. Besides, well-organized groups like the Muslim Brotherhood already occupy the middle ground, so Salafis stand to gain little politically by moderating. On economic matters there is more wiggle room. Thus, Yassir al-Burhami, the deputy head of the Salafi Call organization that founded Egypt's largest Salafi political party, approved an interest-bearing loan to Egypt from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But it is telling that many in the party have harshly criticized his decision as un-Islamic because usury is forbidden in Islam. Pragmatism comes at high cost when it involves Islamic matters Salafis hold dear.
Although politically active Salafis will be bad for social and perhaps some civil liberties like free speech, Salafis are not necessarily hostile to U.S national security interests in the Middle East. The political platforms of the various Salafi political parties in Egypt, for example, did not include anti-American rhetoric, and the head of Egypt's largest Salafi political party affirmed his support for the Camp David Accords. It is true that Salafi terrorists are one of the great threats to U.S. security and there is an unsettling respect for al Qaeda among many Salafis, but creed alone cannot explain why some Salafis turn to violence while others repudiate it. Those Salafis who turn to violence do not stand apart from non-violent Salafis. They often attend the same mosques, follow many of the same scholars, go to the same universities. Today's Salafi vigilantes and terrorists in Libya are not socially distinct from yesterday's Salafi terrorists who have embraced mainstream politics -- they move in the same circles. What has changed is the political context, which forces Salafis to reevaluate their methods. Holding Salafis to account for their past associations while ignoring their current behavior risks negatively influencing their choice.
The Arab uprisings are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to refashion the Arab world. Like others across the political spectrum, Salafis are seizing the opportunity to press the new regimes to craft states in the Salafis' own image. Whether the outcome is hideous or beautiful depends on how the new regimes respond.
Will McCants is a Middle East specialist at CNA and adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins. He is the author of Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam.
The Middle East Channel offers unique analysis and insights on this diverse and vital region of more than 400 million.